Knowing the history or etymology of a word does not always tell anything about its current usage or meaning. Silly, for instance, used to mean ‘blessed’, but that is just irrelevant to the way it is used now. Sometimes, however, a word’s origin or structure can be quite revealing. Prejudice, for instance, means ‘pre-judge’: to form an opinion about a person or idea or thing in advance without the benefit of a proper understanding.
A prejudice may well involve categorising someone in a particular way, perhaps just because of their appearance: they may be black, Jewish, female, gay, shifty looking, ‘foreign’, or whatever. They may be wearing clothing which suggests that they are a Muslim, or a shirt of a football team you dislike, or just a hoodie. Or you may hear them say a few words and decide that you don’t think much of their accent. In all these cases, a person is being judged – and perhaps dismissed or ignored – by being seen as a member of some group of people, rather than as an individual. Such a prejudice might be justified by saying that ‘they’ are all lazy or untrustworthy or potential terrorists, or just not the sort of person you want to be in any way associated with.
Stereotyping along these lines is one of the foundations of prejudice and bias.Ideas like racism and sexism are not respectable these days, and most people will deny being prejudiced – if you think you aren’t, try the online test at NEW LINK
Prejudice may be merely a matter of dislike, but when it influences the way you behave and leads to some disadvantage for the other person, then that’s discrimination.
Someone may be denied a job for reasons quite unrelated to their ability to do it, or they may be refused service in a shop, or made to wait in a queue. And there are far worse things, too, such as racist murders or attacks on anyone who belongs (or appears to belong) to some demonised group. Capitalism is full of examples of prejudice and discrimination. Gender and race have been the most obvious examples, with women being confined to the home, earning lower wages than men, having fewer educational opportunities, being subjected to domestic abuse, and so on. People with dark skins have been treated as less than human, enslaved, confined to the worst housing and worst jobs, lynched and brutalised. The Nazi onslaught on Jews and many other groups, such as Slavs and Roma, is probably the most notorious and despicable example.
Where there is a problem, capitalism often sees the chance of a reform, designed to alleviate some of the worst excesses and make it look as if the system and those who run it care about the most downtrodden. So there is now plenty of legislation against discrimination. For instance, the Equality Act, which came into force earlier this year, covers discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, sexual orientation, gender, disability and race. Yet it illustrates the point that government legislation cannot in itself change people’s attitudes. Many Christians who run bed-and-breakfast establishments have objected that they can no longer ban ‘undesirables’ from their premises: gays, satanists, Muslims, even other brands of Christian – all may be viewed as not the right kind of person (Observer 26 March).
But it’s not just a matter of likes and dislikes. So often prejudice and discrimination under capitalism can be traced back to competition, for jobs, houses or government handouts. If ‘they’ come over here and take jobs that belong to white workers, then unemployment among whites could be reduced or eliminated by sending ‘them’ back or at least by putting them at the end of the line for jobs. The housing problem would surely be far less serious if ‘they’ were not allowed to jump the queue for council houses. Some group of people can be selected as scapegoats who are blamed for all the ills of society: unemployment, homelessness, crime, violence, insecurity, poverty. Tragically, workers who suffer from these problems will often put the blame onto fellow workers, who in fact may well be even worse off than they are.
Not all prejudice can be said to be caused by competition. Religious bigots, such as the christian B&B owners, can introduce their own forms of intolerance, backed up by nothing more than a dislike of anybody who is in some way different from themselves. And ideas can change, however slowly. Gays and lesbians, for instance, rarely have to keep their sexuality secret nowadays (though in plenty of countries this is not the case). Discrimination against disabled people is far less widespread than it once was. But of course, nobody could pretend that racist ideas are a thing of the past.
And there is one form of discrimination that cannot disappear under capitalism, because it is built in to the system’s very bones. This is discrimination on the grounds of wealth and power: a relatively small number of people have a great deal of both, while the vast majority (the working class) have little of either. It’s only workers who have to worry about discrimination in terms of jobs and housing: if you live off profits and have several luxury apartments and a country mansion, then you hardly need to worry about not being ‘one of us’. Equalising pension arrangements for men and women doesn’t affect you if you’re a millionaire whose post-‘retirement’ standard of living will barely take a cut.
The Socialist Party’s Declaration of Principles claims that a Socialist society will involve ‘the emancipation of all mankind, without distinction of race or sex’. In a world where competition for housing and jobs is no more, where all take an equal part in producing for need and running society democratically, it will be absurd to suggest that any kind of prejudice could still exist. Maybe we will still form first impressions of a person we meet, but that will be based on their own character and behaviour, not on lumping them in with some ill-defined grouping.
Being a Socialist implies opposition to all kinds of prejudice and a determination to treat people as equals and as individuals.